Irish Sea Monsters in Mythology

Interestingly, for an island, Ireland has a surprisingly limited number of references to sea monsters in the existing mythological literature and folklore (although there’s quite a lot relating to inland rivers). Naturally, there are tales aplenty involving seals (i.e. selkie). These are most common to the north and along the coast of current-day Scotland but, for the most part, the tales portray the creatures as relatively benign (i.e. they’re certainly not described as fearful or terrifying), probably because of their small size.

Basking Shark in Cork Harbour: picture from Evoke.ie (http://evoke.ie/news/were-gonna-need-a-bigger-boat-awesome-video-of-a-massive-shark-in-cork-harbour)


Back in the day, the native Irish population would certainly have been accustomed to seeing physically impressive animals such as the basking shark and the whale when they were at the water’s edge or travelled offshore. That’s probably why we have a relatively substantial body of Irish mythology around the míol mór (the whale). Such mythology tales are predominantly found in the immram (a name sometimes applied to Irish sea voyage stories) such as the Voyage of Maol Dúin or the Voyage of Saint Brendan the Abbot (Navigatio sancti Brendani abbatis) and can actually be quite entertaining. In the latter, for example, the sailing saint and his companions land on an island and set a fire to warm themselves. The island abruptly moves in response to the great heat of the fire and turns out to have been a slumbering giant whale.

Irish stories of sea creatures would also have been influenced in later times by the mythology of other cultures introduced as a result of invaders (e.g. the Vikings, Normans etc.), traders and Christians. The Normans for example, are believed to have brought numerous stories from Greek mythology over with them which merged over time with the local tales (e.g. Irish stories of mermaids are predominantly based on this). Again, however, even the merged tales do not usually incorporate sea monsters.

On a more local basis, the stories of sea creatures would almost certainly have been supported by the discovery of carcasses along the Irish coastline and the incorporation of such facts in to the tales of the native population. Whales certainly washed up on a relatively frequent basis and, as a kid, I was the proud owner of an immense whale rib-bone found on the beach in West-Cork and displayed it to anyone who’d let me.

This week, there was a lot of media attention around the discovery of a 5.8 metre giant squid caught in a trawling net 190km off the Kerry coast. Interestingly, the father of the that fishing vessel’s skipper also caught two giant squids off the Kerry coast back in 1995 – the last recorded sighting in Irish waters. In all of Ireland’s documented history, there have in fact been only six sightings of this creature (the first being in 1673, the next in 1875 around Inisbofin and three others in 1995).

The giant squid lives in extremely deep waters (40 or 50 feet) and only rises to shallower levels when chasing fish to feed. They also tend to live quite far offshore (obviously, as this is where the water’s deepest). For this reason, the likelihood of such creatures washing up on the Irish coastline is actually pretty slim even over a prolonged time period. Most of the squid that die probably end up sinking or being eaten. Those that do float are subject to tidal currents and given the great distances from, are likely to hit the Irish coast in very tiny numbers if at all. Even if the body of such a creature did hit the coast, there’s also a low probability it would do so along an accessible part of the shore or on an area frequented by people (the population of early Iron age Ireland, for example was very low compared to today’s populations).

All in all, this probably goes someway to explaining why there are no native Irish stories of sea creatures with distinctive beaks and the ability to release impressive dark clouds of ink.

The Story of Berrach Brec (Irish Mythology and Folklore)

Background Context: This was originally a 12th century tale from the manuscript ‘Acallam Na Senorach’ which concerns the two Fenian heroes Oisín (son of Fionn mac Cumhaill) and Caoilte mac Rónáin. Both warriors have returned to Ireland from the Otherworld Tír na nÓg (the Land of Youth) but many centuries have passed and their homeland has very much changed. The two warriors have split up to travel around the country and visit old sites they once knew. Caoilte is currently being hosted by the of Kinelconall (around modern day Wicklow) at his home in Dún na mBarc.

The Story of Berrach Brec

After they had eaten, Conall mac Neill gestured out to sea where a dark patch was just visible on the blue blade of the horizon. ‘You see the island out there?’ asked Conall. ‘Out on that island stands the ruins of an ancient fort. In those ruins there’s an enormous tomb whose origins have been lost to time.’
On hearing this, Caoilte looked towards the distant isle and surprised them all by starting to weep.

Conall approached him cautiously. ‘Caolite. You who are courageous and so skilled with a sword …’ He paused. ‘I beg that you and your companions accompany us to the island tomorrow to view it’.

‘By my word,’ said Caoilte. ‘That island is the third place in Ireland I do not wish to see for the memory of the noble people who once lived there.’ He sighed, a sigh so great it echoed down upon the distant strand. ‘But, yes. I will go with you tomorrow.’

Because of the great warrior’s melancholy mood, it was a subdued night in Conall’s dwelling. At dawn the next morning however, Conall, his wife and other members of the settlement had gathered eagerly to await his rising. Since his arrival, Caoilte’s tales and knowledge of times past had stimulated them, raised their spirits and explained much that was now unknown after the passing of so many centuries.

Day broke with a glowing sun, perfect visibility and a faint breeze. The waves were low and mild as three boatloads of people travelled across the glistening sea to the island which consisted of several forest-coated hills. Landing on a clear, white strand, they started uphill to the ruins of the small fortress which was located on the island’s highest point. There, within its cramped ruins, they found the enormous stone tomb that Conall has spoken of and which measured seven score feet in length and twenty-eight in width. Caoilte took a seat on the tomb and sat staring at the ground while the others gathered around. The bustle and chat of the crowd slowly dropped to a solemn hush as they looked about at the ancient, moss-coated stones.

‘By my soul, Caoilte,’ said Conall. ‘I have seen many tombs in my day but never one to match the marvel of this one. Can you tell us whose it is?’

The warrior did not speak for a time but when he did his voice was heavy with emotion. ‘I’ll tell you the truth of it, Conall. This is the tomb of the fourth best of all women who ever lay with a man back in the day.’

Conall paused, carefully choosing his words before posing his question. ‘And who were these four distinguished women?’

Caoilte closed his eyes as though struggling to recall but his answer, when it came, was clear and confident. ‘The first was Sabia, daughter of Conn Cétchathach (Conn of the Hundred Battles). The second was Eithne Ollamda, daughter of Cathaír Mór. The third was Cormac’s daughter Ailbhe, known as Ailbhe Gruaidbhres (Ailbhe of the feckled cheeks). The fourth – and the woman in this grave – was Berrach Brec, daughter’ of Cas Cuailgne, king of Ulster, and beloved wife of Fionn mac Cumhaill.

If any one of those four women had goodness in excess of the others, it was Berrach Brec. At her home, a guest could remain well hosted from the first day of Samhain-tide to the first of spring and had his choice to remain longer should he wish. If any man lacked arms or clothing, she ensured he received enough of both before he left.’

‘And what was the cause of her death?’ asked Conall.

Caoilte gave a sad laugh. ‘Love, of course.’ He grew quiet once more and it was some time before he spoke again.

‘Berrach Brec was raised by Goll mac Morna’s father and mother as their only fosterchild. On her eighteenth year, when she’d grown to a beautiful woman Fionn mac Cumaill begged her father for her hand. Because Fionn’s tribe – Clann Baoiscne – was a onetime enemy of Clann Morna, he agreed only on the condition that the tribal leader, Goll mac Morna, also gave his consent.

Fionn, passionate as ever, then approached his old adversary Goll and asked for the hand of his foster-sister. After much discussion, Goll finally agreed. “But there are three conditions,” he told the Clann Baoiscne warrior. “These are that you can never dismiss her as your wife; she will be your third wife and you will give her whatever she asks without refusal.”

“All of those conditions will be met,” Fionn answered him.

“And who shall you provide to Clann Morna as sureties?”

“I leave that choice to you,” said Fionn.

In the end, Fionn gave his own three foster-sons as sureties: Daighre, Garadh and Conán. Berrach Brec, for her part, was happy to go and live with Fionn and over the subsequent years she bore him three strong sons: Faelán. Aedh Beg and Uillenn Faebairdherg (Uillenn of the Red-Eye).

Fionn had her for a loving wife for many years until the peace between Clann Morna and Clann Baoiscne was broken. Clann Morna turned on Fionn and raised a war party that numbered three thousand warriors.’
At this point, Caoilte closed his eyes and uttered a quatrain in an ancient form of the language that was now no longer spoken:

Ten hundred and twenty hundred there
That was the bulk of proud Clann Morna’s rank and file
Over and above which chiefs and their chieftains
Who numbered fifteen hundred

‘The Clann Morna war party travelled to Daire Taebdha (Oakwood of the Bulls) in Connacht. There, three groups of Fionn’s warriors caught them by surprise, attacking at dawn before they’d arisen from their camp. In the oakwoods, we felled fifteen of the most battle-hardened and well-armed Morna warriors and would have felled more had Goll mac Morna, that experienced battler, not arranged to protect their rear. As they retreated, we were unable to inflict any further damage.

Infuriated by the defeat, Clann Morna decided then to slay anyone who was aligned or friendly with Fionn and his Fianna. Conán Maol (Bald Conán) was the one who gave this advice. Goll’s brother, Conán was a man whose mind knew no peace. A breeder of quarrels, he was a malicious mischief-maker in times of war or peace.

Making their way to this island and this fortress where Berrach Bec was staying, Clann Morna paused on one of the nearby green-grassed meadows to decide what to do with her. Berrach Bec was their foster-sister after all. After much argument and discussion, they decided to offer her a choice: to bring away all her possessions and valuables and leave Fionn. In that way, they reasoned, by returning to her foster kin, she’d never have to fear Clann Morna again.

When this message was conveyed to her, Berrach Bec appeared on the ramparts of the little fortress and cried out to them. “Would you truly injure me? Would you truly injure me, my own beloved foster brothers?”

“We would,” they answered.

“Then do your worst,” she countered. “By no means will I forsake my husband Fionn mac Cumhaill, my first family and gentle love.”

Angered by her response, the Clann Morna war party approached the fortress in battle formation and surrounded it, each man within touching distance of his neighbour. When it was completely encircled, they set it alight from every side.

The panic-stricken Berrach Bec somehow managed to flee the settlement with a number of her serving women. Slipping through the Clann Morna battle line, they made a break for the sea. Up on the rampart of the burning fortress however, Art mac Morna, spotted her hurrying towards a sailing ship on the long white strand. Slipping a finger into the thong of his javelin, the Clann Morna warrior raised it and cast at her.

Down on the strand, Berrach Bec heard the javelin’s whistle and, startled, glanced about to see what was causing it. The missile struck her full in her chest, cleaving straight through her breast to break her spine in two.’

Caoilte sighed. ‘And that is how she died.’

The warrior got to his feet and leaning against one of the moss-coated walls, he stared down at the impressive stone structure. ‘Afterwards, once this fortress had been plundered, her own people carried her up from the shore and laid her here. This then was the woman whose tomb this is. The loyal Berrach Bec.’